Slaying the paperwork dragon

Organizing paperwork can sometimes seem like the world's most difficult task. And it seems that the busier we get, the more difficult it becomes to handle. As I had breakfast one morning, I couldn't help but notice that my favorite comic strip character was bemoaning her plight to her mother. This seemingly intelligent women, a successful business professional, was complaining that she had seemed to have inherited her mother's knack for piling up endless stacks of paper. As I thought about it, it seemed that they had hit a raw nerve in people everywhere.

Paperwork, that seemingly endless, multi-headed dragon needs to be tamed and contained, almost on a daily basis. I set out that day to find some solutions. This is what I've learned:

First of all, like any other project, you'll need the proper tools. In this case, I suggest the following:

  • Spiral notebook
  • Large flat calendar
  • Small calendar or date book.
  • Package of index cards (assorted colors work nicely)
  • Index card file box
  • Box of large brown envelopes
  • File Folders and a file cabinet or box
  • Thin black marker
  • A few large zip-lock style bags

Now let's take a look at how the various papers get into the house.

  1. The mail
  2. School
  3. Newspapers and magazines
  4. Handouts and flyers

Each is somewhat different, but they can have several similarities in common.

Here are some ways to handle them all.

  1. The easiest way to keep paper under control is to eliminate it before it comes into the house. This means those if you pick up your mail from a Post Office Box, sort it and dump any unwanted or useless pieces immediately. If you don't want something specific from that catalogue, don't bring it into the house. If you have no intention of joining the book/tape/recipe of the month club, let your Post Office trash handler dispose of it. In short, if it never makes it into the house, it can't make it into the heap.
  2. The next step is to tackle the first piece of paper that has made it inside. Does it need to be paid ? Then it goes into a "bills to be paid" folder or box. Only keep the actual bill and the envelope. Discard any extraneous papers that accompany it. Does it need to be read? Either scan it now and then dispose of it, or put it into a "to-read" pile. I keep mine in a very large zippy bag. Then I take it with me as I chauffeur kids around and go to various appointments. Waiting is so much easier when you are accomplishing something.
  3. Is there only a small part of a piece of mail that you need to remember? Keep a spiral notebook handy. Note the important facts or phone numbers and get rid of all the rest.
  4. Do you need to note an important date for an event. Immediately put it on the large "family" calendar and also note it in your smaller, personal calendar. An important trick at this point is to add the related phone number onto both calendars. This comes in very handy if you need to call to cancel, get directions or need any other information. If there's an actual invitation involved, I tape it to the front of my file cabinet.
  5. If the return address or phone number is something that I'm likely to need in the future, I write it on an index card at the same time. I put the name on the left side of the first line and the primary phone number on the right side. Then I add the address below the name and any other phone, fax or e-mail numbers under the phone number. On the lower lines I add either reference names or the names of other members in that household or other pertinent information. On the back of the card I add office hours, directions and similar information. Account numbers can be added in red, if desired. This way I can raise the card slightly in the box to access the phone number or I can take the card with me if I need to. I can also choose the cards that I want to take with me for any purpose. This comes in very handy when you need to send Christmas cards, birth announcements from the hospital or vacation postcards.
  6. This also applies to small pieces of paper with phone numbers on them. If the number is important enough to save, it's important enough to save properly. Either create a file card for it, or at the very least, if you'll only need it once or twice, write it down in your spiral notebook. Don't forget to add any pertinent details like Doris' cousin, Donald or the little girl that Alice met in the park. Otherwise you'll find yourself staring at it a month from now saying "Margaret, who" or I wonder if I should save this.
  7. Before creating a permanent file for anything, I ask myself what would happen if I trashed it? If the information is critical enough that it needs to be saved, I write the name of the company or task (such as fund-raiser or reunion) on the folder with a marker. I write small enough that I can add the phone number and my account number directly onto the label portion of the folder. This makes it much easier to call and discuss a problem or ask a question. You don't have to remove the file, hunt for the phone number and account number and remember to refile it. On the front of the folder I record the payment history, if appropriate. I write small and record the date, amount paid and payment information. This way I can tell at a glance when it was paid last or if it was paid by check or charge card.
  8. Occasionally a piece of paper is so important that its loss could have serious repercussions. This would include the deed to your house, the title to your car, a copy of your will, birth certificates, stock certificates and the like. These things are best stored in a private box, in a bank vault, commonly known as a safe-deposit box. If you have any doubt about the importance of a particular document ask your attorney, accountant or banker for advice. They answer these questions all the time.
  9. Once a year, files need to be purged or cleaned out. This means taking out each folder, one at a time. You must then decide if you need to save the contents or not. The endless detail pages of your phone bill can probably be gotten rid of UNLESS you've deducted some of those calls on your income tax. Then you may need proof if you are audited. Old fuel oil bills may be trash, UNLESS you are in the process of selling your house and a buyer wants to see them. Either way, you could probably get duplicates, but it can be an involved process, so assess each item carefully. Those that must be saved should be placed in a carefully marked and dated brown envelope and filed in an attic, on an upper garage shelf or in a box under the bed. This is best done annually, in alphabetical order. Example: all 1997 files, alphabetically, followed by the 98 bunch, awaiting the 99 bunch. There are varied rules in regard to how long the IRS requires you to save particular items so if in doubt, again, ask a professional.
  10. Sentimental items, such as Susie's kindergarten music award can go into a zippy bag and then into a specially marked box. The bag, properly sealed, will preserve the document for Susie's children.

Once you've created a system, it will be much easier to keep things organized. This is especially true if all family members know where everything is. This doesn't mean that you should try to explain these things to your six-year-old, but at least two other people should know where to find your important things. Your attorney should have kept a copy of your will, but someone else, a trusted relative who does not live with you (in case of fire.), should also have a copy in a sealed envelope. While you're at it, pass around lots of photographs too. If you're the only one who has treasured photos of your child, a fire, flood or tornado could erase all of those precious memories. A hidden passbook could send your savings to the state, instead of to your family.


Then, once the paperwork beast has been harnessed, other things will become more obvious. The stuff for the thrift store, the library books, the clothing for the dry cleaner, the scarf your sister left and more. Now that you've slain your paperwork dragon, these other little things will be a cinch. Simply take some paper grocery bags and label them in large letters with a marker. Fill them with the appropriate items and put them in the trunk of your car. Then it will be easy to get rid of them as you go and there won't be any wasted trips.

You're now well on your way to a more organized lifestyle. Scanning your closets as you pack those "trunk" bags may reveal additional things that could be put to better use by other people. This is the time to include, with her scarf, that perfume that you thought your sister might like or the clock that you've been meaning to give to your nephew. Remember, the easiest way to organization, is to eliminate as much as possible. The less you store the less you have to organize. It starts to feel pretty good and the more that you get into it, the better it feels. But wait, don't get rid of that...

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